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ABA Is Not Just For “Bad” Behavior

What is ABA?

Applied Behavior Analysis is often misunderstood because of the word BEHAVIOR. This article is to help educate parents, teachers, pediatricians, and school administrators on the differences between ABA and Behavioral Therapy. The main goal of ABA is skill acquisition. Examples of common skills acquired in ABA include waiting, sitting in a chair, attending to learning material, communicating, writing, reading, and how to perform necessary daily activities. 

Why does the title of ABA include the word behavior?

Everything we do is behavior. A common saying in ABA is, “If a dead man can do it, it is not a behavior.” Our learning, sitting, walking, talking, etc. are all behaviors. ABA specializes in all of these, not just “bad” behavior.

I believe that the misconception between ABA and “bad” behavior can be explained by exploring my tumultuous relationship with my computer. Learning for everyone is uncomfortable. Due to that, negative behavior often occurs when we are learning. I yell when I cannot make my computer do what I need it to do. My yelling behavior is simply a response to my ineffective computer skills. The more I learn about my computer, the less I yell. 

What is the difference between ABA and other therapies?

The biggest difference is that ABA is typically 20-40 hours a week of therapy versus 30-60 minutes a week. This is why ABA is the most effective treatment for children diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Delays and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder (Callahan, Shukla-Mehta, Magee, & Wie, 2010). 

We all learn through repetition, but children with these diagnoses require intense repetition. It often takes up to 2,000 times of practicing a skill before it is mastered by a child with developmental delays (Weiss, Fabrizio, & Bamond, 2008). “Bad” behavior often accompanies this learning process simply because of frustration. For example, a child that cannot tell you what he wants will often hit, kick, scream, or tantrum if he does not have the words to say, “I want milk right now.” Once we help the child acquire language skills, the “bad” behavior naturally goes away.


Those of us in the field of ABA are often approached by teachers, school administrators, parents, counselors, etc for our expertise in “bad” behavior”. However, that is not our actual specialty. Instead, we spend all of our days teaching and practicing new skills with our clients. A byproduct of this work is that the “bad” behavior naturally diminishes when a person has the appropriate skills. When the rest of the world sees “bad” behavior, we simply see new skills that need to be acquired and begin planning the best way to teach that individual. 


  • Callahan, K., Shukla-Mehta, S., Magee, S., & Wie, M. (2010). ABA versus TEACCH: The case for defining and validating comprehensive treatment models in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (40), 74-88.
  • Weiss, M.J., Fabrizio, M. & Bamond, M. (2008). Skill maintenance and frequency building: archival data from individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Precision Teaching and Celeration (24), 28-37.